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Unsafe ice can pose serious threat to anglers

Photo courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish Department
02/01/2005 - Wyoming Game and Fish Department

It cracks, it pops, and sometimes it shifts under your feet. Ice on Wyoming's lakes, ponds and reservoirs can offer anglers access to some excellent fishing. But it can also pose life-threatening circumstances if proper precautions are not taken before venturing out.

"Most of the problems we've seen are with people trying to put vehicles on the ice," said Al Conder, Casper region fish supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Ice should be at least 12 to 14 inches thick to support a vehicle, and even then it can be very risky, he said.

"If you drive out on the ice in a vehicle, you can cover a lot of distance very quickly and you're not checking the thickness as often as you should," he said. "This is where people get into trouble with their vehicles on the ice." He warns that ATVs and snowmobiles can also fall through ice and discourages anglers from driving any form of vehicle onto the ice on any body of water. "Ask yourself if it's really worth the risk," he said.

Even anglers who are walking out on the ice should always be cautious. "Be sure to check the thickness of any ice before venturing out," he said, "and continue checking it every 100 to 150 feet." Four inches of clear ice is usually safe for fishing. "Clear ice is stronger than cloudy or white ice," Conder said. "White ice has often been frozen, thawed and refrozen and it's not always stable." White ice can also be from air bubbles or frozen snow and is much weaker than clear blue ice. For white ice, double the recommended thickness.

Fluctuating water levels can also affect the stability of ice, especially next to the shore. "You could have good ice out there, but sometimes the access out to it can be a problem," he said.

And while the ice on the North Platte River may often appear safe, Conder warns everyone to steer clear of it. "It's best to just stay off the river," he said. "With flowing water under the ice, conditions can change rapidly." Wyoming's relentless winds can also play a huge factor and can determine how solidly the ice freezes and how long it stays frozen.

"All it takes is one afternoon of real warm Chinook winds," he said. "The ice could be OK one day, and in poor shape the next after these kinds of winds."

He said ice fishermen should never go out on the ice alone. "The buddy system is critical," he said. "Have a friend along in case you run into some problems. It can make all the difference having somebody there to throw a rope." He said it's also a good idea to let other people know your plans. "Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back," he said.

Other safety precautions include wearing a life jacket and carrying a floatation device on a rope that can easily be thrown, as well as some sort of ice picks fastened to a rope and worn around the neck. "This can be as simple as a lanyard with some spikes attached," he said, "Anything you can use to grab the ice in case you fall in."

Low water temperatures can be life threatening this time of year and hypothermia is a serious risk for anyone who does fall through the ice. Ice fishermen should also learn to recognize and to treat hypothermia and should always have dry clothing and hot liquids close to hand.

And finally, Conder said, just because there is ice on the water doesn't mean fishing regulations are relaxed. "The rules apply in the winter as well as in the summer," he said. Ice fishermen who use live minnows must still follow the Wyoming Fishing Regulations for bait fishing, and creel limits and possession limits also still apply.

While frozen lakes and reservoirs offer some excellent fishing

opportunities, anglers are urged to take safety precautions before

venturing out onto any ice. Always check the thickness and clarity of

ice before walking onto it. Four inches of clear ice is usually enough

to support anglers. Cloudy or "white" ice is dangerous and should never

be trusted. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department also discourages anyone from driving vehicles, including snowmobiles, ATVs and campers, onto any ice.

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